Monday, October 25, 2010

I love Jesus!

Yes. I said it. And, it's true (well, some Jesus. The liberal commie Jesus*). I also love Albus Dumbledore and would totally have a bromance with Batman and(or) Marcus Aurelius. How does the historicity of a character affect the emotions you have for them? If the person died before you were born, there's not much difference anyway, from a pragmatic standpoint. Oh, sure- you can say, "But he really did all these things! Isn't that dreamy?" But does that change anything? Are the struggles of Robin Hood against a corrupt government any less poignant than of George Washington risking everything to create a country dedicated to the free expression of religion? The obvious argument, "Well, Washington has a legacy. It's called America." is actually rather empty- after all, what, today, that makes up America, that directly affects your life, could honestly be attributed to him? Even the constitution has had to change a great deal in the past 200 years (17 amendments were done without any input from Washington). He's a great man, I'm told, but what if he really did pass the buck for cutting down the cherry tree? Would that make his accomplishments less? Again, I don't think so, but it's nice to believe, isn't it? That our president wouldn't lie even when he'd get in trouble for it. But does it affect our lives? I don't think it does. I don't care if Abraham Lincoln was born in a palace, a log cabin or 400 log cabins (points if you get the reference), it doesn't change how I live my life. What if it was really Garfield (James, not the fat orange tabby) that freed the slaves? Would it change your life? I might be surprised, what with the history lessons changing, but I'd still go to work the next morning, and life would continue. Slavery would not be re-established because Lincoln was discovered to have not abolished it.
Where am I going with all this? Well, to Jesus, of course. Who cares if he lived back then or not? Either He's God, and He'll make good on his word, or He won't. Regardless of your views on how inerrant the word of God is, the bible was written by men, copy-edited by men, revised and published and translated by men, each step requiring hundreds if not thousands of repeats.
To make things worse, any historical (as opposed to archaeological) evidence from that era is scarce at best- before the printing press, the written word just wasn't as common. We might think that a miracle worker would get more press, but obviously, he didn't- almost all of the evidence we have for his life comes 40 or more years after he died. The documentary "The God Who Wasn't There" lays out one side of the case very well. But there is other evidence which suggests He did exist, historically (granted, it's mostly the same evidence read in a slightly deeper voice). I personally, and most biblical scholars in general tend to find non-historic Christ a much more compelling argument- He's simply too poorly tied to any documented era- but there is plenty of legitimate, scientific wiggle room because there's not enough evidence to make a definitive call. We could get some, of course, and should always be willing to update our beliefs if more evidence comes in, but right now, I think it could still go either way.
But why does it matter? The teachings of Jesus, the life he led, the stories he told, are all good for instruction, for inspiration, even for salvation. If you really read the bible, at no point does it expect you to believe Jesus took human form- just that He was the Son of God.
What's the difference if everything recorded about Jesus came from one source or 50? Really? Despite the shame you might feel for being duped (just as I would in the case of Lincoln not presiding over the Civil War), does it change the way you're going to live your life? It's not going to change the great theologians papers. The papers of the late CS Lewis wouldn't need revision, except in one or two minor places. It would be an embarrassing blunder, but qualitatively not even a minor blow to the strength of either his arguments or his conviction. Is the story of the widow who gave her last 2 pennies any less relevant, today, because the original teller might have been some random, nameless Rabbi, perhaps inspired by god but not His son?
For more information, check out the books and documentaries by Robert Price, Richard Carrier et al.
I love Jesus. *The Jesus that believed in the redistribution of wealth, laid the groundwork for welfare, and made medical care free for everyone while still loving the essence of free market capitalism provided it was free of the stench of human greed, religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness? Yeah, that Jesus I can get behind. And for that, I don't care if he's real or not. It's more of an interesting factoid compared to the wealth of things I know about his character. Given his liberal leanings, and the Yahweh of the old testament's rather hard-line conservative ones, there's little doubt why Jesus had to die, whether it was just a story or an actual event.


I realized, shortly after posting this, that while I love the character of Jesus I should be clear that I have 6 metric craploads of 100% Grade A USDA Beef with the Bible, religion, and the more fundamentalist types of Christian. This is a science blog, and I'm not trying to jump into the atheist scene- so I'll shut up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And they thought Napster was bad.

One of the most alluring concepts to we geeks me is the idea of immortality via upload into a computer, whether it be a network, robot body, or something similar. There are many reasons for and against. I'll tackle a few, but first, a colossal caveat.
The entire concept of "the upload", and all the reasons for and against, are predicated on the assumption that it's possible- Massimo Pigliucci, a brilliant evolutionary biologist turned philosopher of science who blogs and produces a podcast in his spare time, gives an example of why it may not even be theoretically possible.
To sum up his reasoning, the idea is that while we can simulate a cell that contains chlorophyll, we couldn't get a real sugar molecule out of it by shining simulated sun on it, meaning that there would be a permanent disconnect between reality and our simulation. Because of this, it is completely possible that the idea is impossible, even in theory. I'm not entirely sold on this- I take the stance that we could simply simulate the sugar molecule and all the secondary and tertiary effects, etc., until eventually we would be able to simulate everything relevant to the human brain, but that objection is made as a layman, and possibly a complete idiot. In any case, almost everyone agrees that simulating a human brain will probably be much more complex than just simulating the structure of our neurons, and could take hundreds of years. So, here's hoping that achievement will take place within the lifetime of my readership.
In any event, even if it's completely ridiculous, it is still a good exercise in critical thinking, so let's look at the cons.
First, we have to accept that even with "immortality," we will never escape death. Eventually, the last electron will decay, leaving us without electricity. But that's 10^26 years or so away. Even if we rely on some process independent of electricity, there won't be any energy left after 10^42 years. The odds are, our servers, wherever they were located, would be consumed in some sort of cosmic accident. But that's likely hundreds or even thousands of years after the upload- and I'd take the trade-off.
Second, we would die normally anyway. We couldn't transfer our consciousness into something other than our brains- we might be able to map the entire brain down to it's essential building blocks, and make a digital copy in some way, but the original brain would still be subject to the experience of death and decay. We would ultimately experience a normal death- but there would be another copy of us with all of our memories and personality intact. Again, I'd take this risk if it meant there was another me that was capable of watching my grandchildren's grandchildren grow up (perhaps inhabiting a robot body to play with them, or at least teaching them chess over the internet).
Third, what kind of life would it be? Great, I find myself in an ill-matched computer "body" with urges that can't be directly satisfied- what if I want a sandwich, for instance? Would I be living in an eternal dream like state "inside my mind", where my brain merely simulates everything with limited input from the outside world? Or would I be in some hellish prison of my own design, unable to indulge in any of the pleasures and rituals that make me human? This is the first con to give me pause- I'd hope that my download had been thoroughly tested and we were certain that it wouldn't drive us insane before I went in. But I still think I'd go for it- for me, even an eternity in torture is a plus over nothingness. And if it got too bad, I could (hopefully) beg someone to pull the plug.
Fourth, identity theft could be literal. We would be much more subject to kidnapping, and even worse, illegal copying/hacking. This is a terrifying consideration, but hopefully, the danger could be mitigated via relatively simple and cheap protection methods. Norton Anti-Virus for the soul, as it were.
Now, the pros are pretty simple. First, virtual immortality. Not only would we (or our copies, at least) avoid the unpleasantness of dying, they would never age. We wouldn't require food, at least not in the normal sense, as olfaction would be entirely simulated and possibly quite rewarding in its own right- many people I've spoken to consider fine food a great reason to pursue the endeavor of life. Think of it, not only the wisdom of the ancients could be passed down, as it is today, the giants whose shoulders we stand upon, the Albert Einsteins of tomorrow, could themselves preserved indefinitely, keeping us in touch with history in a way impossible now.
This leads to a second pro- no overpopulation. Real estate requirements would be minimal, food requirements would be non-existent. We would require some energy, probably quite a bit, but not much more than a battery of street lamps. Assuming energy continues getting cheaper, this would become more and more negligible as the years wore on.
Third, imagine the ways we could explore the universe! Without these fleshy bodies, we could travel between the stars, no longer requiring oxygen, no longer dependent on something as fragile as the human form. We would have none of the ethical concerns of sending generations of people to explore worlds far from our own- we could simply sign up for the mission.
Obviously, there are many more pros and cons, but I think these are among the most compelling and daunting, respectively. I hope this has given you food for thought.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Metaphorical invisibility sucks. What about literal invisibility?

Twitter got me thinking. It has a terrible habit of doing that. Specifically, this time we were talking about being invisible and abusing the advantages. One of my tweeps mentioned being invisible in the Caribbean- and I began to wonder about it. I asked if tanning/skin cancer would be a concern, and she said it would be, since UV light is also invisible.
At this point, I was intrigued. Invisibility is great, but how could it work? I came up with a few scenarios.
First, UV light is the primary source of tanning. But, how do we gather heat from the sun? It has been demonstrated that the most energetic wavelengths of light, on Earth at any rate, also correspond nicely with the visible spectrum (particularly green, hence chlorophyll). The sun "just happens" to emit light most strongly in this spectrum. But what does that mean for the Invisibles? Heat is a byproduct of kinetic movement, in that molecules, and especially their electrons, get agitated to the point that they move around faster, jostling back and forth. In a normal, visible human, light rays bombard our skin and clothing and smack into millions of molecules on our skins, speeding things up and warming us.
So, would the invisibles be cold all the time, unable to draw heat from the light that was hitting them, only able to get warmth via ambient heat? Or would we be too hot, since ultraviolet rays could somehow pierce through our skin and shine directly on, well, everything inside, agitating a lot more than our surface area? Neither of these answers has implications that pass muster. Being opaque to UV radiation seems absurd if we're going to be transparent to everything else, since right now we're opaque to most everything else as well. If they were cold all the time, that makes (very slightly) more sense. X-Rays pass through us, and we don't notice any significant heat difference because they are passing through us, not colliding with our skin or, since we'd be completely transparent, organs (well, at least not colliding with us in any significant number- I'm sure the occasional atom will absorb a random photon here and there, but not on the scale that something opaque does at every minute of every day).
But then we have the problem of what would we be made out of? There are lots of reasons that we aren't invisible (for one thing, materials that are simply aren't conducive to life), but how could we be? Water makes up most of our cells, but it's not invisible, either. For something to be invisible, it would need to refract the light in precisely the same way as the ambient air. And water simply can't do that. So the rest of our materials would have to optically correct for the failure of our water. For one thing, we do tan, and melanin would have to go. Sorry, bones, calcium is no good- perhaps we can restructure the molecules so that they are largely silicon and oxygen, (out with you, calcium!) and never mind the pesky hemoglobin (a very complicated molecule in its own right) that is bright red and performs the minor task of transporting oxygen to the rest of our bodies... and I think you can see how this explanation rapidly degenerates into one more extravagant excuse than the last.
Well, maybe one way, but I don't particularly buy this one either: the Invisible Man tackled this issue by simply putting the protagonist into another dimension, at least partially, which neatly sidesteps all of the aforementioned problems (and puts the explanation, and any bothersome details, neatly out of the grasp of most non-physicists, including myself).
So, screw all that. There's no way, without some kind of cloaking device, we'd be invisible, and that's not particularly tenable either, for many of the same reasons, including one more that applies to all three.
Everything else aside, I don't buy it simply because our eyes function by capturing light, and if they can't because light goes through them, then I'm invisible(Yay!) and blind(Crap!). In the case of the alternate dimension approach, I would think that our ability to see would be based in whatever dimension our eyes were in, for the same reason. Of course, on that front, I could be completely uninformed. About all I know about multiple dimensions is that, mathematically, they have been proven to exist. And if something is mathematically proven, that's about as certain as we can be of anything at all.
In that case, though, good news. I am invisible- to anyone not in the room with me right now. At least, dimensionally distant.
Verdict? Metaphorical invisibility sucks, but at least you still have 5 senses going for you.